Monday, October 18, 2010

Two Things I Like About You, Part Two

Isn't it great when you make something that everyone likes?  It is like Thanksgiving dinner.  Kids coming to the table with smiles, looking forward to the meal.  Knowing they will get their fill, and like it too. 

If you are like me, you make at least 6 dinners a week.  That is 6 times a week  that someone asks you, "What's for dinner?"  Six times a week there is the opportunity to surprise and delight or see faces filled with dread.  Not everyone is going to like every meal, so I harden myself to the disgusted faces.  However, it does sometimes get to me.  Disappointment, annoyance, even anger, based on the day and the effort I put into the meal.  I am a realist, don't get me wrong.  I know that I can't please everyone all the time.  But boy, would I like to!!

Dan Dan Noodles are one of those great meals that my whole family loves.  It took a couple makings, but now it is one of my shining stars.  This is the meal Tim asks me to make for his birthday.  This is the one that we get cravings for.  This one is a winner.

This one also has ground pork.

I know, I know, no quadraped eating! First with the bacon and now with the ground pork!  Traitor!!

Seriously, though,  I am not backsliding.  This is one meal that I made before the 4-footed ban and never had the heart to tinker with.  Other meals of its kind I replaced the beef or pork with ground turkey and got on with my life.  Dan Dan is just too good.  I love it.  I am not changing it.  There it is.  You will agree.  I know you will.

Savory, salty, peanut buttery goodness on whole wheat pasta (the second thing to love about this meal!).  It is just plain yummy.  It is one of those meals were you want to eat more, but you also want to save some for leftovers (which you will hide in the far recesses of the fridge so that your husband won't take it to work).  As long as you are careful with the cracked red pepper, your kids will love it, too. Toothsome is what this meal is.

Dan Dan Noodles are better than Thanksgiving, also, in that they only take about 30 minutes to make.  What could be better than that?  So there you have it.  Two meals with two things I love.  A little pork and whole wheat pasta in a 30 minute package.  Wrapped on your virtual doorstep with a bow on top!  Happy dinner!

Dan Dan Noodles
*Serves 4 as a main course.

8 ounces ground pork
1 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons Chinese rice cooking wine or dry sherry
ground pepper

¼ cup tablespoons soy sauce
¼ cup tablespoons oyster sauce
½ cup peanut butter
2 tablespoon rice vinegar
2 cups chicken stock or canned low-sodium chicken broth

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 inch piece fresh ginger, minced (about 1 tablespoon)
6 medium cloves garlic, minced or pressed through garlic press (about 2 tablespoons)
3/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
13.5 ounces (one box) whole wheat linguine
3 medium scallions, sliced thin (about 1/3 cup)
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil

2 cups bean sprouts (about 6 ounces)
1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns toasted in small dry skillet until fragrant, then ground

1. Combine pork, 1 tablespoon soy sauce, sherry, and pinch white pepper in small bowl; stir well with fork and set aside while preparing other ingredients. Whisk together oyster-flavored sauce, remaining soy sauce, peanut butter, vinegar, and pinch pepper in medium bowl. Whisk in chicken stock and set aside.

2. Bring 4 quarts water to boil in large stockpot over high heat.

3. Meanwhile, heat 12-inch skillet over high heat until hot, about 2 minutes. Add veggie oil and swirl to coat pan bottom. Add pork and cook, scraping along pan bottom and breaking up pork into small pieces with wide metal or wooden spatula, until pork is in small well-browned bits, about 5 minutes. Stir in ginger, garlic, and red pepper flakes; cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add peanut butter/chicken stock mixture; bring to boil, whisking to combine, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer to blend flavors, stirring occasionally, about 3 minutes. Stir in sesame oil.

4. While sauce simmers, add noodles to boiling water and cook until tender (refer to package directions, but use them only as a guideline and be sure to taste for doneness). Drain noodles; divide noodles and combine with sauce. Sprinkle with scallions, bean sprouts, and ground Sichuan peppercorns, if using; serve immediately.

tooth·some adj \ˈtüth-səm\

1a: agreeable, attractive
1b: sexually attractive
2: of palatable flavor and pleasing texture : delicious
— tooth·some·ly adverb
— tooth·some·ness noun

Ok, I have to admit that I am a shocked! I am shocked and a bit offended. I thought that toothsome generally meant a savory yummy thing that you can't stop eating. Good thing I looked it up! Who knew it was up there with Honey and Sweetie-pie. Comparing women to food ? I am pretty sure I have a strong opinion on this, I just can recall what it is at the moment. I'll get back to you on it. By definition we can still call the meal toothsome. However, you will have to try try the recipe to help me come up with a better word.

Some of the ingredients you will need for this recipe.  I buy the local brand "fresh ground pork."

It is important to really BROWN the pork.  Not just grey, but brown little bits are what you want.

The sauce initially will be separate, but it will come together while it simmers.

Mix in the peanut oil and green onions at the end.  Yummy!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Two Things I Like About You, Part One

In my own little world, bacon doesn't come from something that walks on 4 legs. It doesn't lives in pens and it isn't pumped full of hormones to make it so darn tasty.  It is its own separate entity, living out its free-range, fully organic, free-trade, kissed-and-hugged every day life.  It has equality of sexes, full voting rights, universal health care, free first-rate education and generous PTO.  Slaughtering is voluntary, humane, fully anesthetized, with last rights and hymns of choice.  It is the fabulous lifestyle of the bacon that makes it so good.  I'm sure of it.

Bacon, really, is magic.

The Italians were the first to figure this out. Eaten on it's own, awesomely indulgent. But combined with just a few simple ingredients and you have an amazing meal.  A hearty, savory, filling meal. 

We Americans have grown stale to the magic of bacon, I think, due to its overuse.  We put bacon in and on everything! It's fatty goodness draws us in and sells.  Over-the-top taste at bargain prices.  It is all too much.

However, scaled back to the simplest of ingredients, the bare minimum of indulgence, it can be the shining 'star of the show' in a fairly healthy family meal.  This recipe (surprise) came from the Cooks Illustrated International Recipes Cookbook, and originally calls for pancetta.  While, it must be one amazing meal with pancetta, I don't regularly have pancetta in my fridge.  What I do have is H.E.B. Thick-Cut Bacon (a Texas grocery store brand), so that is what I use.

What I love about this recipe is that I almost always have the ingredients on hand.  It is so quick and easy to make, and with the addition of Whole Grain Pasta (the second thing I like about this meal), what is not to love? 

Notice, there is no garlic in this recipe.  I didn't even know there was an Italian recipe without garlic!  It does have a whole onion, though. I am not a huge fan of onion, but it works in this recipe.  So, give it a try, even if you are pretty onion phobic!

Pasta with Tomatoes, Bacon and Onion (Pasta all'Amatriciana)
*serves 4 with leftovers

6oz thick-sliced bacon, cut into 1/4 wide strips
1 medium onion, minced
1/8-1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1 (28oz) can whole tomatoes, tomatoes diced and juices reserved
1 box whole grain pasta, linguine or thick spaghetti
1 oz pecorino-romano cheese, with more for serving

Bring water to boil for pasta

Meanwhile, heat large skillet over medium heat and add bacon.  Cook until crisp, removing bacon to paper towel-lined plate.  Discard all but 4tbl of fat in the skillet (adding olive oil to supplement).

Add onion and 1/4 tsp salt to the pan and cook slowly over medium heat until softened, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in red pepper flakes and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.  Stir in tomatoes and their juice and simmer until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes.  Set aside and cover to keep warm.

Stir pasta and 1tbl salt into boiling water and cook until al dente.  RESERVE 1 CUP PASTA WATER, then drain.  Add pasta and 1/3 cup pasta water, cooked bacon and cheese to sauce and stir to combine. Add additional pasta water to pasta as needed to loosen sauce.

Serve with additional cheese.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Just Like Flying

I haven't done a lot of flying lately that didn't include blankies, toys and gummy bears.  But in my younger years, I did often have to face the carry-on or check dilemma. Let me tell you, it all comes down to shoes.  If you can make it through a 3 day weekend with the pair of shoes you are wearing and only one additional pair, carry-on is a breeze.  Even if you have to bring your own hairdryer.  The more shoes, the harder it is going to be.  Especially in the winter.  Winter boots are are a carry-on buzz kill. 

Last time I visited my parents in Pennsylvania, I had to face the carry-on conundrum.  In essence, this should have been easy.  Four days, no huge temperature differential and no weddings.  Casual. 

The problem is that I am a runner.  If I want to run, I have to bring my size 9 Etonics, which are not slim.  It would be the best use of space to wear them on the airplane, but then I would have to suffer the fashion consequence.  

Don't get me wrong, I love my running cloths.  If it was up to me, Dri-FIT would be the "fabric of my life."  However, I have watched my fair share of What Not to Wear and have internalized that my running apparel is not fit for airport consumption.  Plus, I would have to take them on and off for security, and they are a bit stinky. Luckily, Mom has a hairdryer so in the bag they go.  

With my one pair of carry-on shoes taken, I am forced to make do with the pair of shoes I wore on the airplane for the entire trip.  Given I am not a huge fashionista I was able to make it work.  However, it did result  in having to wear a pair of pants one day that are unfortunate in the the butt area.  Which makes one wonder, is the time and hassle saved by carry-on really worth a day of ill fitting pants on vacation?

Making a menu for a week long camping trip is just like trying to make due with unfortunate pants.  Except instead of shoes, the linchpin in the camping menu is the condiment.  Salsa, milk, butter and syrup, mayo and mustard, jelly, ketchup, dijon, ranch dressing, cheese, sour cream...ugh.

There are plenty of wonderful things that my family loves to eat, and that I would love to make for them on camping trips.  However, during the Texas summer, what doesn't go in the cooler must not spoil at 90 degree temps.  When I am packing for an extended trip in the heat, cooler real estate is precious.  Every item must earn it's rightful spot in the chill zone by making an appearance at more than one meal. It is a very fine juggling act to manage cooler space and keep everyone fed and happy. 

I take my Mom and Dad's tact and plan meals old school, with pencil on paper. Divide paper into three columns (breakfast, lunch and dinner) and as many rows as you have days.  Cross out travel meals and then start inserting ideas.  I don't list ingredients on my meal plan, but I do make note in each corner the condiments necessary. 

Try to think of meal-groups.  For example, my family loves tacos of all kinds.  Tacos have a lot of condiments: cheese, salsa, lettuce, tomatoes and sour cream.  However, I can reuse the lettuce and tomatoes in a future salad, the cheese and salsa for breakfast tacos latter in the week. 

You can also take advantage of new small condiment containers that don't need cooled until opened.  If you can hold off on opening your salsa or mayo until latter in the week, when the cooler has open space, then it is less of a worry.

I usually go through 2 or 3 iterations of my menu to get my meal groupings, condiment openings and spoilage parameters in order.

Like the carry-on conundrum, condiment management is not perfect.  Surprisingly, though, most deficits are glossed over with liberal placement of M&Ms, Jiffy-Pop Popcorn and s'mores.   After all, you are on vacation!

If only s'mores were an easy answer to unfortunate pants.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Crazy Good Cookies

What is it about summer and the amount of snacks consumed? If it was just my own kids, that would be one thing, but add another hungry 5 and/or 7 year old to the mix and the gang can plow through a pantry of snacks before you can say "playdate."

Then there is swimming. French for 'ravenous'. I am pretty sure a kid swimming consumes more calories than your average marathon runner! Two hours in the pool, my kids can put down a sandwich, two pieces of fruit, a bag of chips and still ask for more food. Crazy drenched calorie suckers.

My kids love cookies. They beg for cookies as snacks. But in the summer, cookies don't last long in their tummies. Which makes them fun treats, but not a great lasting snack. This recipe fills that little space between cookie and granola bar.

A cookie without flour? You won't believe me, but these cookies are so good! Chewy, sweet, everything a good cookie should be. Made large, they fill you up with protein and whole grains, giving more staying power. You can omit the chocolate chips, but I never do! It is a cookie after all.

PB-O Super Secret Cookies
*makes 4 dozen

1 1/2 c peanut butter
1/2 c butter
1 c sugar
1 c brown sugar
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
4 1/2 c oats
2 tsp baking soda
1/2 c ground flax seed meal
2 c dried fruits, nuts or choc chips

Cream together peanut butter, butter, and sugars. Add eggs and vanilla to creamed mixture. Combine oats, flax and baking soda in a separate bowl.  Add to creamed mixture. Stir in mix-ins.

Drop by tablespoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 for 12 minutes.

Recipe Notes:
OK, here is the thing about flax seed. If you buy it whole, like I do, it will last a LONG time in the pantry.  Which is good, because you probably don't use flax seed all that often.  As soon as you ground it, keep it in the freezer, though, as it will start to turn. 

I tried putting these little guys in the mini-chop, to no avail.  Doesn't do a thing to them.  Same with the food processor.  The only way I have found to ground them is to use my coffee grinder.  Some people have an extra coffee grinder they use for spices and stuff like this.  I don't have an extra.  So, after cleaning the coffee out of the coffee grinder, it makes short work of the grinding.

Of course, then you have to clean the flax out of your coffee grinder... or not and just see your husband staring at his coffee in the morning, wondering what the floaty bits are.  Don't worry, they are good for you!  Because of this hassle, I tend to grind enough for a couple batches and put the rest in the freezer.

Spoon these out on parchment paper about as big as a golf ball.  Yummy big cookies!

I will admit one little thing about these cookies.  While they are baking they smell a little strange.  I can't place the smell, and it isn't really bad, just strange.  I think it is the flax, I am not used to the smell of it. However, they taste great, freeze well and last a good long time in the pantry.  I hope you like them! 

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Happy Homemaker

He was a tricky one.  Smooth, I tell you.  He jumped strait from,"Hi, this is Brian from the Blah Blah agency doing a 1 minute survey on home products." to "What brand vacuum do you own?"  He missed the middle step.  The part where he asks if I want to be part of the survey.  The part where I politely decline and hang up the phone.  One minute I am making snacks, the next I am stammering, "um, um, um.... Hoover?"

One thing this guy did have going for him was that his survey really only took a minute and it wasn't very intrusive.  Until he got to the last question, "What is your occupation?"   

This is how these things start, you know.  One minute you are sucked into a phone survey, the next you are contemplating your occupation.  Or at least, this is how it works for me. 

Homemaker.  That is what I said. 

Which is weird, because for the last 8 years I have preferred the SAHM moniker.  Modern.  Descriptive. 

"I am not a maid" my mom-friends and I would say, while sitting amongst toddlers, scooping sand into buckets.  "I am not the cook."  Because, you know, those things still needed to be shared.  Like how it was before kids.  We were still stinging from not taking home a college-degree-earned-fast-track-career paycheck. "I am a Mom first." we would say. "That is my job."

Why did I say Homemaker?  I don't think I have ever called myself that.  Homemaker is that women on the front of the Betty Crocker Cookbook.  You know, fluffy hair and apron?  The one with the cookies and the vacuum?

When the kids were really little, to say I was a Homemaker would have meant that I was in charge of those other things as well as taking care of the kids.  When really I was just clinging to sanity with the strength of disposable-diaper velcro. I am the first to admit that I didn't make the transition to SAHM gracefully.  There was post-partum depression that hung on in waves, well into combo car-seat years. Most days there was no vacuuming, no broad smile, no fluffy hair or clean apron.   

People always said it would get easier as the kids got bigger.  They were right.  You get more sleep and more time to yourself.  There are other challenges though.  Lots of driving, for one.  And more emotional hurdles then physical ones. Homework and attitudes instead of diapers and tantrums.

Both my kids will go to school in the fall.  In so many ways the Homemaker title is more appropriate to my new role.   A raise and new business cards would have been a nice transition.  But hey, a phone survey and a knock on the noggin from my unconscious will do also. Life is messy that way. Good thing I have an apron and a vacuum!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

OD on Nostalgia

My hubby Tim likes Classic food. If I make Chocolates Chip Cookies, he wants them to be regular chocolate chip cookies; 3 inches across, semi-sweet chips, no nuts. If I make pot roast, it has to be the pot roast your grandmother would have made; in a Dutch oven with the veggies and no crazy spices. If we make his favorite breakfast, Eggs Benedict, there can be no deviations. Eggs, english muffins, canadian bacon and hollandaise. Nothing more, nothing less. He likes food to be like it was when he was young or like when he first tasted it.

Tim is a nostalgic eater.

Tim's comfort food can be a source of stress for me. There are some foods I just won't make, because there is no way it will ever live up to the memory in his head. I sometimes wonder if he really remembers what it tastes like, or if it is the taste mixed with the emotions of the time.

Nostalgia is also difficult in restaurants. He can't stand when cooks put spinach in the Eggs Benedict, or don't put 1000 Island Dressing on a Reuben. "Why do they always have to do something different? Why can't they just make it like it should be?" He seems to seek out the replica and in turn often seeks out disappointment.

If you ask Tim what his favorite soup is, be ready for a half-hour story. It is something called Book Binder Soup. He used to get it with his father in this special old restaurant in Chicago. My husband has a great memory for every little detail. He will tell you what the place looked like, smelled like, the fabric napkins, how his father acted, what is in the soup, and how it made him feel. He will go on and on about the soup.

Early in our marriage, he admitted to me that his Mom asked the restaurant for the recipe and they actually gave it to her. "Did it taste the same?" I asked. "Pretty close" he said. Which is saying a lot. So, I called up his mom and asked for the recipe. She told me no. She said that If I made the soup then it would be 'Heather's good soup' and she wanted to be the only one to make him his favorite soup. "You can have the recipe when I die."

At first I was taken aback and angry. I thought she was pulling some sort of Mother-in-Law power trick. I mean, we live two states away! She flies in to see us 2-3 times a year. I always do the cooking while she is here! Why would she deny her own son his favorite recipe?

Now that I have 12 or so years of cooking for this man under my belt, I see it a different way. I always assumed that he became this nostalgic as an adult. I now think he has always been this way.

Maybe, even as a small child, he was comparing tastes from the past, always slightly unsatisfied with the current version. When his Mom made the soup and got a "Pretty Close! " well, that is about as good as it gets. She probably just wanted to hang onto that recipe, that feeling from him. The approval of current times, of current Moms.

My husband is wonderful in so many ways. I am lucky and blessed as a wife and a mother to have a husband who is so kind, helpful, and sexy. Who walks on water in more ways than I can tell you. Nostalgia is a bitter-sweet blessing in this marriage. When it comes to food and travel, I stick to the unexplored. It means that I am always trying new things, making discoveries.

Some day I imagine, after a lifetime of exploratory eating, Tim will order something in a restaurant and say, "It's good, but not as good as yours." That is the power of nostalgia. If you hang around long enough, you become part of it.

I found this recipe on my own nostalgic search for the perfect Shrimp Scampi.  You know, Shrimp Scampi like your favorite Italian place makes.  After quite a few dry and icky scampi recipes, I came across this one on the Internet.  It certainly isn't perfect. But it is easy, quick and full-proof.  You can go from frozen shrimp to meal in about 35 minutes!  For some reason, I almost never put this over linguine.  I usually put it over white rice.  Don't know why, I have just always done it that way.  In case you are wondering... No, Tim doesn't think it is a perfect Shrimp Scampi, but he does like it.

Shrimp Scampi Anne  
*feeds 4

1 1/2 pound jumbo bay shrimp -about 30 jumbo
1/4 cup olive oil
salt, black and red pepper -- to taste
3 cloves garlic -- minced
1/3 cup parsley -- chopped or 3 tbl dried
1/3 cup seasoned bread crumbs
8 tablespoons melted butter
1/3 cup white wine
1 dash Tabasco or Louisiana sauce
linguine or white rice-- cooked
1/4 cup Parmesan and Romano Cheese -- grated

Slit shrimp down the back leaving tail tip section of shell on the shrimp. Devein, wash and dry shrimp.

Arrange shrimp, single layer, in 10-inch square baking dish. Pour olive oil evenly over shrimp. Sprinkle to coat with salt, black and red pepper, garlic, parsley and bread crumbs. Cover dish and bake in preheated 300F oven for 20 minutes.

Pour butter, Tabasco, and wine evenly over shrimp. Bake uncovered 5 minutes longer or until done. Do not overcook; the shrimp will toughen. Serve over cooked linguine and top with grated cheese.

Recipe Notes:
For the shrimp, I use the frozen kind that you can get at Costco (Kirkland Brand, teal bag).  They come deveined and lovely!  The bag I buy is 2 pounds of 21-25 size shrimp.  For this recipe I dump half of the frozen bag into a glass bowl and put them in the sink, letting the water run gently on them for a couple minutes.  The flowing water is what makes them defrost quickly.  Stir them once or twice to break them up.  When they are mostly thawed, drain and dry with paper towels. 
I use a garlic press for this recipe, so that you can keep the pieces of garlic small.  In this picture, you can see the shrimp layed out in my oval Corning Ware baking dish (2.5Qt).  The garlic, dried parsley and salt and peppers have been applied.  You can kind of see how much red pepper I use. Just an even light dusting.
Seasoned bread crumbs work well, as well as plain.  I cover the pan with foil and throw it in the oven.  Then, mix the liquids.  Boy, my kitchen was pretty sunny the day I made this!
Of course, great wine would make this great!  However, I am not a huge white wine drinker.  When I have it great, when I don't I use those bad Pino Grigios or Chardonnays you can find in a 4-pack or milk-like carton.  I think I am a bit overzealous with the wine because you can see my liquids equal about a cup, and they should be a bit less.  I use 3 shakes of Louisiana sauce in this recipe, and it isn't too spicy for my kids. 
I hope you like the recipe.  If you have a "perfect" Shrimp Scampi recipe, please leave me a comment.  I would love to try it.  Nostalgia can be pretty powerful!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Free-Stone Fairy Tale?

Yesterday, my five year old Claire and I were tooling through the supermarket in search of a couple items. As we passed through the produce, I picked up a bunch of bananas and stopped dead in my tracks.

"What is that smell?" I gasped. Peaches! Not just any peaches. Peaches that actually smell like peaches. From a distance. Peaches so tiny and so overripe that they were tucked in behind the bananas. Still, peaches.

It has been a long winter of apples. That is all I am saying. I am sick to death of apples.

Claire was dancing around as I was inspecting the pick. "Can we buy the peaches? Can I have a peach RIGHT NOW? How about in the car? Can I have a peach in the car on the way home?" Unfortunately, the news was not good. I don't know where these peaches were from (it is too early for Texas peaches, I believe) but they were tiny and hardly hours from being too ripe to sell. Most were wrinkly and bruised. These would hardly last the bagging let alone make it into lunches.

"Let's buy enough for a peach cobbler!" I struck a bargain. And so we picked the best of the bunch and headed home.

"I know how to make peach cobbler" she says on the car ride home. "I saw it on Cooks Country!"

Yes, it runs in the family. Once a week I DVR the show Cook's Country by the American Test Kitchen folks. If you can get past the ringing steeple bells and rocking chairs on porches, it is a good clean cooking show. Less gastro-porn and commercials than your average Food Network fare. Claire loves Cooks Country. She watches them repeatedly, especially the ones about desserts.

Later as I shove dinner in the oven, I contemplate these little peaches. Usually I peel peaches with a knife. These peaches were only slightly bigger than lemons. I was sure that if I pealed them there would hardly be enough flesh to bake. So, I got out my big pot to do a quick blanch to release the skin. The water is at a boil, there is another bowl with ice-water nearby, I am just about to dump the peaches in when Claire strolls into the kitchen.

"What are you doing?" she screeches, alarmed.

"I am blanching the peaches to release the skin so that I can peel them." I say, dumping.

"But that isn't how they do it on Cooks Country! They use a special peeler with a zig zag edge."

“Shoot” I think. "You mean a serrated peeler? I don't have one of those. I am going to do it this way."

"Hmmm" she says, unbelieving, one eyebrow raised. "If it works, can I peel them?"

I was pretty ecstatic (inside) when the skin slipped right off the peaches. She was surprised it worked and delighted to peel them.

As I drained away the ice-water from the now-slippery peaches she says, “If you cut them all the way around with the knife, can I pull them apart and pull the pit out for you?"

This isn't going to be pretty. "Well… Cooks Country used free-stone peaches, and these are cling, so that isn't going to work." I try to explain the difference between free-stone and cling peaches as I am messily cutting the flesh away from the stubborn pits.

"But that isn't fair" she wails. Claire is pretty dramatic. "You have to do it all with a knife, and you won't let me use a knife. I wish we had free-stone peaches! Cling peaches are dumb." She twirls on one foot and stomps out of the kitchen.

I wish this story had a great closure. Some sort of a-ha moment. I picture my daughter, smiling over her Peach Cobbler ala Mode, sauce dripping down her chin, saying, "Wow Mom, this peach cobbler is as good as the one on TV." But that didn't happen. Not that she didn't enjoy the cobbler. She had two bowls. But there was no fairy tale ending, no overt moral.

Later, as I was falling asleep, it occurred to me that maybe I had misunderstood. Today she learned, much to her dismay, that there are different kinds of peaches. Also she saw that there is more than one way to skin a peach. She might have learned a little something about overcoming obstacles in the kitchen.

What I hope she learned more than anything is that her Mom is a pretty good cook. And you can't learn everything from TV.
note: a recipe next time, I promise!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Bagging 101

I spent $245 at the grocery store today. After 5 days of stomach flu, in which I have no idea what the family ate, and 5 days of being out of town, in which I am pretty sure they ate what I left for them, the cupboards were bare. Except for some Claritin and a tube of toothpaste, everything in my cart was edible. Epic shopping. Cart overflow.

My grocery shopping trips usually come in the $130 to $180 range. That is about 5-8 reusable shopping bags worth, depending on the skill of the bagger. Given you can put 4 bags in the bottom of the cart, one on the leading edge tray and 2 in the child seat, I can usually get away with no bag stacking. This is strangely very important to me. Quite frankly, I am bagging sensitive. If there was a behavioral spectrum of bagging sensitivity, I would be off the chart. I make grown baggers cry.

I knew I was in trouble today when the items in my cart started creeping above the rim. The milk was in the underbelly. A bagging nightmare.

You see, I don't like my veggies squished. I spend a lot on fresh veggies, some of it organic. When I get home to smashed tomatoes or bruised bananas, it makes me very angry! During the summer when peaches, nectarines and plums are in season, I get nervous to the point of shakes. "DON'T SMASH THE PRODUCE" I want to yell. But I don't. I try to be nice. I try.

Why is it that the entire success of a grocery procurement process depends on the lowest paid person in the store? Conveyer belt micro-management, this is my coping mechanism. Short of just telling the check-out person that I want to bag myself, this is the only way to have some insurance that the heavies are on the bottom.

• Cans, boxes and bottles go first. Everything that can sit in the car a day and will make a nice stable base in the cart. Two cereals, two crackers, some pasta, various beans, salsas and canned tomatoes. Tightly packed! I want a nice solid foundation. Insert 10 inches conveyer break. Maybe 12 inches.

• Next all of the freezer and cold items; ice creams, frozen raspberries and peas, 30 or so yogurts, assorted dairy and maybe a frozen pizza. All of it gets covered up with my special padded cold bag with the zipper. I love that bag! Make sure you can zip it. I like it zipped. Insert another 10-12 inches here.

• Now it gets a little ambiguous, but I like to jump to the meats. Meats usually stack well and make a pretty decent base. Down go the chicken, fish, lunch meats and cheeses, tortillas and assorted leftover cold-ish things. If I only have enough time to bring two bags in the house, I like to know that all my fridge and freezer items are sharing bag space. No rogue sour cream, please!

• At this point, I am going to send down 3 reusable bags and all the fruits and veggies. They are going to be ordered by how likely they are to break a car window when thrown at a distance of 6 feet, by me. Butternut squash, potatoes, apples, onions, garlic, oranges, lemons, limes, zucchini, bell peppers, tomatoes... I wish for them to be distributed evenly, with the most fragile fruits on top. Little tip, lettuce makes nice packing material.

• Of course, there are some items that must be saved for the very end. The usual suspects, eggs and bananas of course. But I like to save boxed berries, chips and all my bread for the end also. They can be distributed on top of the veg. That is fine with me!

• Milk is always last and doesn't get bagged, thank you very much.

I am thinking of becoming an Independent Bagging Consultant. Mandatory classes for new baggers and ones that want to become "certified." There will be PowerPoint presentations and practical lessons. Maybe a healthy snack will be offered. Some day you too could make it home with intact produce. You'll thank me!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Fair-Weather Friend

I picked up this new cookbook at Half-Priced Books the other day, Simply Organic, A Cookbook for Sustainable, Seasonal and Local Ingredients by Jesse Ziff Cool. It had a couple recipes that looked good right off the bat and really pretty pictures. I like to buy cookbooks used because I am fickle about the ones I keep. This way, when I decide it isn't worth the shelf-space, it wasn't a huge waste of money. There is an inscription in the front of this one: Merry Christmas 2009! Love, Mom and Norman. Sweet, but I guess someone else is pretty fickle about their shelf-space also!

I spent quality time Friday waiting for my daughter in gymnastics reading all the recipes, marking the ones I want to try with post-its. I am happy to report that I have 16 post-its sticking out of this book! That is pretty good for fickle me.

The book is arranged by seasons; early spring, late spring, early summer, mid-summer, you get the picture. I marked one fall recipe, Autumn Vegetable Gratin and one winter recipe, Chicken with Dried Cherries, Capers and Chiles. All the rest of my post-its are sticking out of the spring and summer chapters. The post-it density is so lop-sided, it makes me wonder if it is me (I love tomatoes) or the cookbook (the winter recipes suck). If I was a stickler for organic, sustainable and local, we would have some serious problems come November!

Before the recession hit home, I was going every week to a local farmers market just down the street. It was just one farm, but they had a great variety of veggies. I liked knowing that these smiling farmers were the same ones tilling and planting. Ahhh! Organic, sustainable, local, and yummy. Healthy and guilt free for a price. Come late summer, though, panic sets in when the tomatoes are replaced by okra and greens. I am not from the south. Even fresh, local, sustainable okra is still okra. I just don't like it.

I love the idea of eating all organic, sustainable, seasonal... in the summer, when the eating is good. If I was a country girl, I guess I would can and preserve the bountiful summer harvest to use during the long cold winter. Somehow I just don't think that is going to happen. Not this year, at least.

Environmentally, there is no question that eating organic, local and sustainable is best. During the summer, as much local as possible! However, best for my family is eating fresh veggies from afar, rather than not eating fresh. Bad tomatoes are better than no tomatoes. Carrots for a snack in the dead of winter are far superior to anything processed. It is my guess that even Ms. Cool would agree that though Herb Stuff Artichokes are best in the early spring... eating them in November from South America is better than canned peas any day.  After all, I live in Texas. Artichokes are never local.

I don't really know if this week's recipe is seasonal or not... though I suspect not. However, until the farm-stand has "real" tomatoes, roasting the rock-hard ones you find at the store can be a nice tangy substitute. This is not quick eating, to be sure, but it worth the effort, and can be made ahead of time to help speed up the dinner time rush. I have made this recipe with Cod, Salmon and grilled chicken breasts. Though Salmon is my favorite, chicken is a nice substitute. Just sprinkle on some Herbs de Provence and a little garlic salt to season. Slice over beans and serve.

Salmon with White Beans and Roasted Tomatoes
*serves 4 with ample bean leftovers

2 lbs large tomatoes, cored and quartered
1lb cherry tomatoes, red and yellow if you can find them.
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup olive oil

1 large yellow onion, halved and cut into thin slices
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbl olive oil
Salt and pepper
4 cans Great Northern white beans, drained and rinsed
1 cup chicken broth
1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped and divided
2 tsp Herbs de Provence

1.5 lbs Salmon
Olive oil
Garlic Salt
Herbs de Provence
Heavy Duty Aluminum Foil

Preheat oven to 500 degrees. In 9x13 glass baking dish, mix tomatoes, sugar salt and olive oil to coat. Roast for 35 to 50 minutes until cherry tomatoes are nicely browned and large tomatoes are falling apart.

In a large skillet or dutch oven, heat 2 tbl oil on Medium heat. Add slivered onions, salted liberally, cooking low and slow until slightly browned and very soft, about 8-10 minutes. Add garlic, and cook until fragrant. Add white beans, broth, half of the basil (hold remainder for garnish), and herbs. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to low, cooking for 15-20 minutes until some of the broth has evaporated and beans are very soft. Add in tomatoes and all their juices, stir to combine and adjust seasoning. Keep on low until ready to serve.

While beans are simmering, heat grill to high and make a tray for your salmon with a doubled sheet of foil. Olive oil the bottom of foil pan. Pat fish dry and season top of fish with garlic salt and herbs. Place seasoned side down on pan. Slide foil pan onto grill, adjusting heat to one notch under high. Grill 4-6 minutes on one side, checking to see if it is nicely browned. Flip Salmon with a large spatula and grill on skin-side for 4-5 minutes more, until cooked through, firm to the touch with only the slightest darkened flesh on the inside.
Break or slice salmon into serving sizes and serve over beans. Garnish with remaining basil.

Recipe Notes:
Tomatoes are ready to go into the oven!  This picture is from another meal that also roasts tomatoes, so you don't see the red and yellow cherry tomatoes in there.  They are cooked the same way, except if you have beefsteak or romas cut up, try to turn them cut side up.
Here the onions are just about ready.  A little browner and you are ready to add the garlic.

Add the beans, broth and spices and bring them toa boil.  I just figured out the Macro function on my camera, can you tell?

Ahhh, the tomatoes are in!  Costco had these great little yellow cherry tomatoes.  They are so good!
So, how do you turn a big piece of fish over on the grill?  Well, I think that you need these tools: a cookie sheet, big spatula and an old oven mitt.
Slide the cookie sheet under your foil pan and use the oven mitt to help bring the foil up and off of the flame.  Then stick your spatula under the fish to loosen it.  Get most of the fish under the spatula (as in the picture) and slightly tipping the cookie sheet, flip your fish. Maybe I need to video this?

The fish might come apart a bit, but with practice you should be able to keep it in one peice.  Then slide the foil back onto the flame.  Ta Da!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

World Peace via Condiments

Hello. My name is Heather and I have condiment issues. Yes, you heard me, condiments. I don't know who it is that designs refrigerators, but they do not give enough of a nod to the condiment. My fridge, for instance has 4 shelves and a butter keeper in the door. They are packed full and overflowing. I have jars on top of jars, bottles squeezed in. It is so bad that sometimes when I pull the door open I get attacked by selfish thrill-seeking condiments. I've learned the expected trajectory of the usual suspects; mustard, plastic lemony thing and sun-dried tomatoes. I've got their game covered.

Then there is the Tetris-esc assembly of condiments in the shelves. One must consider height, kid reach-ability, probability of use, likeliness of escape, and stack-ability. Do you want to segregate your condiments by nationality, or experience that whole melting-pot thing? Thoughtful arrangement of condiments goes a long way in making cooking easier and more enjoyable.

We reached the height of condiment overload when I bought the cookbook Cooks Illustrated, Best International Recipes last summer. I love the Cooks Illustrated folks. The balance of science and food, the lengthy explanations, all lend a weighty confidence to their recipes. Prior to this cookbook, my Asian cooking wasn't much more than bottled Teriyaki Sauce on white rice. Now I make pot-stickers, stir-fries, curries, all sorts of great veggie-loaded, low-meat meals. The health benefits, fabulous. That the kids will eat carrots, broccoli, bell peppers, edemame and other great veggies in one meal, couldn’t be happier. The effect on my fridge door, not so good.

Here is the problem, for just the Asian chapters alone I have had to add Fish Sauce, Oyster Sauce, Hoisin Sauce, Black Bean Sauce, Green Curry Paste, Lemongrass Paste and Thai Red Chili Garlic Paste. Add that to the existing Soy Sauce, Teriyaki Sauce and Sweet and Sour Sauce. That is a whole shelf!

But wait, it gets better... want to add another culinary culture? You have to add more condiments! I have Italian; capers, sundried tomatoes, and basil pesto. Two salsas and Taco Sauce for Mexican. Tahini for homemade Hummus, which I wouldn't mention, except it is such a large bottle! Add this to the regulars; two jams, lingonberries, syrup, 4 salad dressings, mayo, 3 mustards, whipped cream, chocolate and caramel sauce, maraschino cherries, ketchup, pickles, two kinds of olives, lemon and lime plastic juice fruit, yeast, 2 kinds of butter, probiotics, cream cheese, chicken base, 2 kinds of Bar-B-Que Sauce, Tarter Sauce, Cocktail Sauce (Hey, sweetie, I found the Cocktail Sauce!), kefir, half and half, and milk. You get the picture.

I would love to cook from some of the other chapters, but I just don't have the real estate.

Humor aside, I am so blessed to live in a place in which all of these ingredients are available to me. As the world is shrinking, I feel a responsibility to introduce my kids to far away lands. I don't know many languages and probably will never be able to afford to take them to the far corners of the earth. But I can open up their taste buds to a variety of cultures and hopefully link our lives to places afar, one dish at a time. A culinary global initiative. If I have to give up refrigerator space for world peace, well, I can live with that.

This stir-fry recipe is a good place to start on the Asian map. The sauce is from Best International Recipes with a couple tweaks, 'Stir-fried Shrimp, Asparagus and Carrots with Orange Sauce.' Not too many condiments and a good base that works well with shirmp, salmon or chicken. It lends itself to the time-impaired, especially if you buy some or all of the veggies pre-sliced. You will find that the cutting prep work is extensive, but cooking takes about 5 minutes. Make sure that you all your prep work is done and you have everything lined up on the counter before heating the pan, because the cooking's quick.

Stir-Fry Shrimp with Orange Sauce

1/2 cup Orange Juice (or 2tbl Orange Juice Concentrate and enough water to make 1/2 cup)
1/4 cup Chinese rice cooking wine or dry sherry
2 tbl soy sauce
2 tsp cornstarch
1 tsp toasted sesame oil
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes (or 1/2 tsp red chile sauce)

Stir Fry:
1 pound large shrimp
2 tsp soy sauce
2 tsp rice cooking wine

3 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
1 tbl minced fresh ginger
2 green onions, minced
2 tbl vegetable oil

2 red, green or yellow bell peppers, cut into thin strips
1 large head broccoli, cut into medium florets
25 baby carrots, sliced in halves or quarters for uniformity
1/4 cup water

For the Sauce: Wisk all ingredients together and set aside

For the meat: Toss the shrimp with the soy and rice wine and set aside, 10 minutes to one hour.

For the herbs: Mix together minced onion, ginger and garlic with oil in small bowl. Set aside.

To Stir Fry: Heat 1 tbl oil in large non-stick skillet over high heat until smoking. Add half of shrimp and cook, without stirring until the shrimp are browned at the edges, about 1 minute. Stir/turn shrimp and continue to cook until they are nearly cooked through, about 30 seconds longer. Transfer the shrimp to a medium bowl and repeat with more veggie oil and shrimp. Remove all shrimp and cover with foil.

In the same pan, heat 1 tbl oil on high heat until smoking again. Add broccoli and carrots and toss for 30 seconds. Add 1/4 cup water, lower heat to medium-high and cover with lid. Steam for 2 minutes, until veg is crisp tender, then uncover. Add bell pepper and cook for 2 minutes more.

Create a hole in center of veggies in the pan and pour garlic mixture into the hole (see picture). Cook garlic mixture, smashing it into the pan for 30 seconds and then mix it into the veg.

Add shrimp and sauce to the pan and stir/cook for about 1 minute until sauce is bubbly and thickened. Spoon over rice and enjoy.

Recipe Notes:
Here are my ingredients. I use the Chili Garlic Paste and throw a bit of Hoisin in there, too.  You don't need to do that!  You might want to add 1tbl of brown sugar to the sauce, though, if your Orange Juice isn't very sweet.  I like to line up all my veg on the cutting board, just like this, so that it is easy to swipe into the fry pan. 

Do you have one of these?  It is a great tool for sauces that switch between tablespoons and fractions of cups.  I just pour in what I need and never have to dirty my measuring spoons.

How much ginger is one Tablespoon?   I put R2 next to a piece of ginger that is about 1 tablespoon.  Does that help? I have found that you want the same amount of ginger as garlic in volume.  So go ahead and guess, and then just add or subtract until it looks like the same amount. 

My broccoli and carrots are steaming away.  Don't steam them into mushy-ness or they will get even more mushy as you cook everything else.  Better to undercook in the steaming stage and then extend the boiling of the sauce at the end if the texture isn't to your liking.

Now the peppers are in the pan.  I like to keep the peppers pretty firm, so this goes quickly!

The veg in this picture has been moved to the rim, allowing a space directly on the pan to add the garlic mixture.  You don't want the garlic to get brown or burn, but you do want to cook it till you can really smell it.  Smush it around!

Here the sauce is added and it is getting all bubbly and thick.  Cornstarch thickens at boiling, so make sure you see the bubbles.

You might have noticed there aren't any shrimp!  This day I made the veggies seperate and grilled some salmon for the meat component. Because I wasn't adding shrimp or chicken I could use my aluminum pan instead of the non-stick.  Use your non-stick if you are adding shrimp.
This recipe also works with chicken.  Slice 2-4 breasts very thin and in a bowl add:
1 tbl cornstarch
1 tbl flour
1 tbl soy sauce
1 tbl rice cooking wine or sherry
2 tbl sesame oil

Mix well with your fingers and let sit 10 minutes to an hour.  Heat the same amount of oil and cook just like the shirmp, in two to three batches, flipping when slightly brown.  Set aside and cover with foil and add back to the pan when you add the sauce!  This process is called velveting and is useful in many asian recipes.  It is imperative, though, that you use a non-stick pan if you add chicken, as it will stick!!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Quick and Cuss-less

Did you see the movie Fantastic Mr. Fox? I loved that movie. Nearly peed my pants I thought it was so funny. Which is strange, because my Mother in Law didn't think it was funny at all. Maybe it was the dry humor. You either like that kind of thing, or you don't. This explains a lot, actually.

In the movie, which is billed as a kids flick, the characters cuss a lot. They say "cuss" as in "Why the cuss didn't I listen to my lawyer?" or "This is gonna be a total cluster-cuss for everybody," or "You scared the cuss out of us." Brilliant. Not exactly kid-safe, but brilliant. Being a bit of a sailor mouth myself, I adopted it immediately.

Like today. I did something bad to my body and my hips hurt. The pain is somewhere between whining and crying, settling in at wincing and cussing. Give me a good hamstring or Plantar Fasciitis to complain about. Those sound hard-core and athletic! But to complain about your hips? Sounds... old. Which very well might be the case, but I am too young to admit it. Either way, it is cuss-worthy and I have been throwing them out like candy.

Sitting elicits the worst of the cuss. This is unfortunate, as the post I want to write is going to take more butt-to-chair time than I can muster at this point. I will save it for when my hips are not on fire. Instead, how about a nice quick side-dish? A nice quick side-dish and no quippy story. I am in too much pain for quipping. Cussing quip-less!

This is a great veggie side-dish that goes with just about anything you might grill during the summer. I don't know where I originally found this recipe, but the picture clearly shows Garbanzo Beans in the filling. Very strange, as there are no chickpeas in the ingredient list. I think that beans would work, though, so you might want to add a drained can for fun!

Grilled Peppers with Corn and Cheese

3 large Red Bell Peppers, halved, cored and seeded
Oil spray (like Pam)
3/4 cup fresh whole kernel corn, or frozen, thawed and drained
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
4 oz Monterey Jack cheese, cut into 1/4 inch cubes
1 tbl lime juice
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground coriander

Prepare grill at medium high. Brush and oil grates. Spray both sides of peppers with oil. Combine everything else in a bowl.

To grill: Grill peppers on both sides, 8-10 minutes total, until lightly charred and softened. Off grill, fill each pepper with corn mixture. Grill covered for 4-5 additional minutes until cheese is melted and peppers are hot.

Recipe Notes:
Here are all my ingredients.  We were out of Monterey Jack Cheese, so I used Colby-Jack instead.  I wouldn't suggest this, as it doesn't melt in the same way!  Tastes good, though.  This is a summer favorite of ours, yet I always seem to make it with frozen corn.  I buy a bag or two of the "white" variety and always have some in the freezer. 

Peppers on the Grill.  Don't they look glossy and beautiful?

We always take the peppers totally off the grill (and bring them inside) to fill up.  Then, they can sit until you are just finishing your other grilled items.  Throw them back on for the last 5 minutes and enjoy!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Some Pig

When you don't normally eat four-legged animals, holidays can be a challenge. Thanksgiving aside, Christmas and Easter are a mine-field of roasts, lambs and hams. Believe me, just because we don't eat them any more, they still look mighty good in the pictures.

I just spent an hour on Food Network trying to find a special recipe that everyone will love for our Easter dinner. I came up with a big nothing. There are lots of special things (lobster!) that I would like to eat, but for this one meal it is important to me that the kids are dazzled. In the old days, we would have had ham, some kind of scalloped cheesy potatoes, two veggies, pink salad and a chocolate dessert. A perfectly dazzling, well-rounded, kid approved, colorful meal (with an abundance of scrumptious leftovers).

OK, I am going to say it, I want ham.

The whole thing feels like that scene in The Big Chill:
Michael: I don't know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They're more important than sex.
Sam Weber: Ah, come on. Nothing's more important than sex.
Michael: Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalization?

I am stumped. I feel like I live in this strange middle ground, constantly re-drawing the dotted line around what we eat and what we don't. Where the inhumane treatment of some animals bother me, but not others. Where the environmental concerns of some plants and animals are more important than others. The health of some foods more current than others. Always new information, new studies, charts and graphs. Doing what I can with what I have...

I can't be the only one who feels this way about food. Maybe because I love it so, because it is important to me, these issues are a real presence in my life. They are a constant companion between the store and our table. I can see my Dad rolling his eyes, "you are taking this too seriously." He is probably right. But then, taking things seriously is part of my nature.

Despite it all, I want ham. I want a pig that was kissed and hugged every day. I want the pig that ate only the best piggish food. A pig that frolicked in grass and wallowed happily in clean mud. A pig that had an untortured piggy life. I want a pig that had a name.

Oh god, I just rationalized eating Wilbur for Easter.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Problem With Chile Peppers

I ruined a perfectly good meal yesterday. I brought it right to the brink of inedible. And I mean, right there. It was so bad that out of sheer kindness, I made plain pasta for the kids. And I am not that kind of a person. It gave me a big ol' stomach ache and the InSinkErator ate the leftovers.

The problem was the chile peppers. You just never know with chiles. Sometimes I buy jalapenos and they blow my socks off. Other times, they don't even blip. What is up with the blip-less peppers?

I should have know better, though, because my friend Laura warned me. You see, I somehow missed Hatch Green Chiles when they came through last August. I don't know what I was doing, but it wasn't peeling chiles! By the time I figured it out, all I could find were roasted Red Hatch Green Chiles. I called up Laura and she made that sound, something between a moan and a hiss. Not good. Laura and her husband are from New Mexico, so she is the resident expert on Hatch Green Chiles. She says they have a deep freeze in their garage just for Hatch Chiles. That is respectable culinary real estate. I like Laura.

She mumbled something like "good luck with that" and did I want to borrow latex gloves for peeling my roasted Red-Green Chiles? Turns out that that Hatch Green Chiles left in the field turn red. Red Chiles are only good for road-side ristras and dried chili powder. "Too hot" she said.

But I had 10 pounds of them, and my hands didn't throb too badly from the peeling, so I persisted to bag and freeze the lot. Up till yesterday, I had only used my Red-Green Chiles for Tortilla Soup. I was pretty sure that Laura was wrong. All my batches of Tortilla Soup this winter were pretty anemic. I struggled with it, actually. My Red-Green Chiles were blip-less. Positive of it.

Sonoran Shrimp Scampi. Doesn't that sound good? Even the picture looks good. I am a sucker for a nice picture. On top of it, I had all the ingredients, except for Pablanos. I am not scared, I substitute with wild abandon! And anyway, I had all these anemic roasted Red-Green Chiles wasting away in the freezer. I sub in 3 chiles, switch out the red bell pepper for yellow and get on with it.

Fast forward to the 'taste for seasoning' part of the recipe. Wowzers! Hot hot hot! Not "this is good" hot or nuanced hot. I'm talking about one-note, hot. Covers up the taste of everything else, hot. Even smothering it with cheese doesn't help, hot. I never want to tell Laura about this, hot.

What is the adventurous cook to do? I do my best to plan meals a couple days in advance, but sometimes I like to try new hour before dinner. I might be adventurous in the kitchen, but am risk-adverse to taking the kids to the supermarket at 5pm. So, there are substitutions. I figure that "nothing risked, nothing gained" applies in this instance. Total failures like last night happen, but far less then you might think. I would rather find myself sweating out a bad meal once in a while, then suffer from dinner boredom. Don't you agree?

In other news, I am toying with the idea of blogging every day what we are eating for dinner. Seems a little scary, but I might give it a try for a while to see what sticks to the wall. Let me know if you want recipes.

Tonight for dinner: Grilled Sockeye Salmon, Brown Rice and Green Beans. The kids ate all of it with the addition of Blueberries. Two thumbs up!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

For Better or Bratwurst

It is like the Continental Divide. You know about the Continental Divide, don't you? It is that place in the Rocky Mountains where if rain falls on one side of the line, the water will flow on its journey to the Pacific Ocean. If it rains on the other side, the water flows to, well... Kansas.

I think it is the same with food. If you drop someone on one side, they roll down the mountains liking artichokes, garlic and grilled salmon. If you fall on the other side, you eat a lot of corn, pork chops and beef. Or something like that.

The point is, I rolled down one side, my husband, the other. Poor guy can't meet summer without waxing poetic about farm stands and "real corn." I have the same longings for tomatoes and freestone peaches. With any good partnership, though, we have learned to cross the divide. OK, to be honest, mostly he has learned to cross the divide. Good thing he likes my cooking!

There is one food, though, that my husband was methodical about breaking into our diet, bratwurst. I had never had a bratwurst until we met. And, for the first, oh, 9 years of our relationship, didn't think too highly of them. Yet, every barbecue, birthday party, Fourth of July and multiple times in between he would request bratwurst. I am pretty sure that if you have been to our house in the last 10 years, you have eaten bratwurst nearly every time.
"People love bratwurst" he would say.
"I don't like bratwurst. Let's have polish sausage!" I would plead, but somehow he would always win.
He would make excuses, "These are bad bratwurst. If they were good brats you would love them." I didn't believe him.

Then, a couple years ago, Cooks Country (a division of Cooks Illustrated) had a recipe for The Best Grilled Bratwurst. Now this was something I had to try! They call it a recipe, but really it is a procedure, one that needs maps and a flow chart. This is lick-your-plate worth it! The result is gooey, slightly bitter, slightly sweet, messy goodness. The simple brat is raised to pass-the-polish-sausage status! Yes, Dad, it is possible.

Of course, when we gave up quadruped eating, brats became guilt-ridden. Turkey brats were eaten, but not really enjoyed. Luckily our brand new Sprouts carries chicken brats, which are surprisingly great. Bratwurst is back on the map! I am so excited, because summer is coming! The perfect time to have a party, grill brats and listen to my hubby complain that Texas corn sucks. Anyone want to come over?

The Best Grilled Bratwurst
6-12 bratwurst
1 onion, sliced
2 beers- anything light and cheap

cooking spray
9x13 disposable aluminum cooking tray

Slice onions and spray both sides with cooking spray. In pan, pour two beers and mustard, no need to stir.

Heat grill to high and scrape clean. Turning heat down to medium-high, place pan on one side of the grill. On the other side, grill onions lightly, flipping carefully when they have grill marks, about 4 minutes each side.

Place onions in pan and lightly grill brats. You just want to get them started, light grill marks and slight shrinkage of the casings, about 3 minutes per side. While grilling brats, adjust heat on pan side so that liquid is coming to a low simmer.

When brats are ready, place them in the pan, moving the onions aside so that the brats are in the liquid. Bring back to slow simmer and cook for about 20 minutes.
Move brats back over to grill side, and carefully grill till brown on all sides. Be careful as they may flare up! Turn up heat to high on pan side and boil onion mixture until it is a thick gravy consistency.

Recipe Notes:
You will need a gas grill to do this recipe! Don't even try it with charcoal. With enough practice, your brats and sauce will come off the grill at about the same time, but don't worry if you have to pull your brats off and cover with foil as your sauce finishes up.

The pan and onions on the grill. You can see that you don't have to stir the mustard into the beer, it gets all mixed up eventually.

The onions are in the pan, and the brats are on the grill for the first time. See the dark grill marks on the onions? You want some of that!

Everything is in the pan. These brats are pretty big! If you had Johnsonville brats, you should be able to fit two packages in there, but it will be close!

The brats are back on the flame, getting slightly brown. They are totally cooked at this point, so don't overdo it. Just give them a nice look and bite.

The sauce looks perfect!

Don't forget to lick your plate!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Bran vs. Germ

Basically, I eat one of four things for breakfast; whole wheat toast with peanut butter, 2 eggs hard-boiled, steel cut oatmeal or Kashi Autumn Wheat cereal. That and coffee, lots of coffee. Except for the weekends, when we make big breakfasts like blueberry pancakes or french toast, it is same-o same-o. Quite frankly, I am bored with breakfast!

The other day I was browsing around Eating Well, trying to find new and different breakfast goodies. I found this recipe for Banana-Bran Muffins that looked easy and yummy! Bran is good for you, and who doesn't need a bit more fiber in their life, right? I didn't notice, however, until most of the ingredients were in the bowl that I had accidentally bought Wheat Germ instead of Wheat Bran. I'm not scared. I just dump it in, put chocolate chips in half for the kids and pop them in the oven.

Yummy! Super Yummy!

I had to wonder, though, how my shopping blunder changed not just the character of the muffin, but the nutritional information. Admitting up front that simple math is not one of my talents, here is what I figure:

One muffin made with Bran: 196 calories; 6 g fat (1 g sat, 3 g mono); 36 mg cholesterol; 32 g carbohydrates; 5 g protein; 4 g fiber; 182 mg sodium; 167 mg potassium.

One muffin made with Germ: 220 calories; 7 g fat (1.5 g sat, 3 g mono); 36 mg cholesterol; 34 g carbohydrates; 6.5 g protein; 3 g fiber; 183 mg sodium; 195 mg potassium.

There you have it. The germ trades fiber for more calories, fat and protein. I am surprised how little they changed, though. Aren't you?

As to their muffin character, I am going to put one of these yummy muffins in the freezer and when I buy bran I will remake the recipe and compare. I don't want to jump to any conclusions, but as a good scientist I do have a hypothesis. I suspect that they are going to be just a little less yummy.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

They had me at NASA

I am a sucker for all things NASA. I was 10 years old when the first space shuttle launched and landed. Part fear, part exhilaration, I remember watching with anticipation equal to an American Idol Finale. I was totally awed by something so huge going so high, so fast. I dreamed about being an astronaut. Then we took a family trip to the National Air and Space Museum.

Have you ever tasted astronaut food? In some sort of cosmic foreshadowing, it was freeze-dried ice cream bought in the gift shop that turned me off to space travel. It is gross. Not creamy, not cold. What is the point? Beef Stroganoff? Barf. Instant career downgrade. Until they get that food thing figured out, of course.

This January I was checking out the food blog, Fridge Magnet, when Lindsey Nair did a little write up on the new book 10 Things You Need to Eat by Dave Lieberman. She spoils the fun,
Let's get your biggest question out of the way right now: The 10 foods are tomatoes, avocados, beets, spinach, quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah), lentils, cabbage, nuts, berries and "super fish," or certain varieties of highly nutritious fish.

Here's me: check, check, yuck, check, quinoa? Never heard of it. Thanks to Wikipedia, though, I learned,
Quinoa was of great nutritional importance in pre-Columbian Andean civilizations, being secondary only to the potato, and was followed in importance by maize. In contemporary times, this crop has become highly appreciated for its nutritional value, as its protein content is very high (12%–18%), making it a healthy choice for vegetarians and vegans. Unlike wheat or rice (which are low in lysine), quinoa contains a balanced set of essential amino acids for humans, making it an unusually complete protein source.[4] It is a good source of dietary fiber and phosphorus and is high in magnesium and iron. Quinoa is gluten-free and considered easy to digest. Because of all these characteristics, quinoa is being considered a possible crop in NASA's Controlled Ecological Life Support System for long-duration manned spaceflights.

Yep, you read that right, NASA! Ohhhhhhh. Flashbacks to freeze-dried ice-cream, I didn't know whether to be disgusted or intrigued. NASA did have a big win with Swedish Space Foam, maybe they have the food-thing figured out? I chose 'cautiously interested' and bought a box.

Dear NASA, Love the Quinoa. Can I have a job? Thanks, Heather

As far as side dishes go, I love brown rice, but I only have one oven and sometimes the hour it takes to cook isn’t practical. Admittedly, this sometimes pleases me. I love white rice. I’m a white rice snob, really. Grew up on rice cooker short-grain sticky sushi rice and have to fight slathering cups of it with butter and sucking it down. Yum.

Quinoa is a fabulous alternative. Looks and tastes like couscous, more nutritionally sound than white rice and just as easy to make on the stove top or rice cooker. And I don’t feel the need to slather it with butter. Quinoa is my new favorite grain (that is really a seed… whatever). But don’t trust me, trust NASA!

Black Bean and Tomato Quinoa was the first quinoa recipe I tried, and loved. It shouldn't come as a surprise, as I use a lot of black beans, cilantro and tomatoes in my cooking. I found the recipe on, but the cooking method they instruct has WAY too many steps. I followed their directions the first time and made the quinoa the easy way every time since then. I don’t think it hurts the integrity of the recipe in the least!

Black Bean and Tomato Quinoa
*serves 4 as side dish

2 teaspoons grated lime zest
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon sugar

1 cup quinoa
1 (14- to 15-ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained
2 medium tomatoes, diced
4 scallions, chopped
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Whisk together lime zest and juice, butter, oil, sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4teaspoon pepper in a small bowl.

In a saucepan, bring Quinoa and 2 cups water to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook, covered for 15 minutes. Do not stir or take lid off. After 15 minutes, remove pot from heat and let sit for 10 minutes without removing lid.

While quinoa cooks, dice tomatoes, green onions and cilantro. Rinse and drain black beans.

Combine quinoa with dressing and veggies, fluffing gently. Serve hot or cold.

Recipe Notes:
You will read about having to rinse quinoa before cooking, but all the quinoa I have bought has been pre-rinsed. In Austin, find quinoa in the open bins at Whole Foods and Sprouts (which makes it easy to just buy a cup to try!). Also, Costco has a 4lb bag right now for $9.99.

You can make the quinoa plain, use chicken broth, toast the kernels a little before adding the water, even brown up a little onion before adding the water and quinoa to the pot. Get creative!!

On my stove (with heat marks 1 through 10), I heat the water to a boil on 7 and then turn it down to 4 for the simmer. I can still hear it simmering in the pot, but not loudly, and certainly not forcefully enough to jiggle the lid.

You will know the quinoa is done when the grains have turned slightly opaque and the little germ tail has uncoiled. Kind of like a natural pop-up red thing on a Butterball Turkey! Can you see it here?

Just mix it all together and serve. This time I didn't add the black beans, as I had run out. Fabulous with or without!